Larry Bennett, a professor in the political science department, talks about his new book, The Third City: Chicago and American Urbanism.
I have lived in Chicago since 1977, which is when I joined the Political Science Department at DePaul.
Over the course of my career I have done most of my research on Chicago topics. This has included examining the planning agenda and record of the Harold Washington administration, community activism in the North Side Uptown neighborhood, and the impacts of the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Plan for Transformation.” From the start, my teaching and research were animated by a personal enthusiasm, which is my love of cities and urban culture. This enthusiasm is probably an outgrowth of my early years spent in a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky. By the time I was a teenager I was seeking a different kind of life, and I anticipated that I would find it in a metropolis, not in a big town like Louisville.
Might I have been more personally and professionally fulfilled had I had spent my life in San Francisco or London, rather than Chicago? I don’t have an answer to that question, but I do know that I find Chicago sufficiently compelling to have sustained my interest in its neighborhoods, political figures, and planning challenges for more than three decades. Nor is my interest in the city waning.
My aim in writing The Third City: Chicago and American Urbanism was to present contemporary Chicago in a manner that substantially departs from typical academic representations of this city. Because my own interest in understanding cities is a product of my enthusiasm for cities, as a classroom instructor, I have long sought to communicate the palpable, experiential quality of Chicago (as well other cities) to my students. It is in this way that I think I can especially reach that group of individuals within any class who will become activists, academics committed to the ongoing work of studying cities, or citizens with a more refined comprehension of their communities.
That sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But what if much of the academic writing about Chicago is narrow in its intellectual ambition—pinpointing statistical trends, but not making much of what has produced these trends, or of their likely impacts—or beholden to preceding “classic” analyses and their conceptual baggage (presuming, for example, that neighborhoods are subject to “invasion” and “succession”)? What if much of the journalism that purports to describe the emergent city is filtered through a jumble of received wisdom owing as much to past journalism as contemporary reality?
The Third City seeks to engage with the real, contemporary city in which we live on a daily basis, and further, separates that Chicago from other versions of the city that can be gleaned from sources such as various widely circulated, seldom reconsidered metaphors (for example, “the city of neighborhoods”), the very slippery “real Chicago” imagined by Mike Royko—who is typically pegged as a straight-shooting chronicler, but just as assuredly was a creative writer whose columns communicate a compelling but also eccentrically personalized sense of Chicago—or the projections of city planners. The latter are usually viewed as naïve utopians; I take them to be surprisingly pragmatic endorsers of a 21st century Chicago that was beginning to take shape around 1950.
So that is what I hope in some degree to have accomplished with my book: offering Chicagoans (and others) a fresh interpretation of this city, and in so doing, provoking some of my readers to rethink and re-experience Chicago in ways that otherwise might not have occurred to them.